Air traffic debacle delaying flights

It was meant to be the state-of-the-art answer to Britain's overcrowded skies. Randeep Ramesh, Transport Correspondent, explains why the UK's pounds 350m new air traffic control centre is still not up and running and may not be operational until the end of the decade, more than three years late.
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The Independent Online
With air traffic increasing by 5 per cent a year in Britain and airlines increasingly concerned about punctuality, carriers will tomorrow voice their worries to the head of the National Air Traffic Service, Bill Semple.

Mr Semple, it is understood, will tell the airlines that the new Swanwick centre, built in Hampshire, will be operational by the end of 1999. This is unlikely to please the carriers, who were expecting the new system to handle "at least 40 per cent more airspace capacity in the mid to late 1990s".

According to Computer Weekly, the British Air Transport Association (Bata), the airline's trade association, wrote last month asking for a refund of the contributions made by airlines to the centre since 1994. Industry estimates put the cost of the extra charges - which cover the depreciation costs associated with the building - to top pounds 30m.

"Airlines are paying 2.5 per cent more than they normally would have for a service that is not being delivered," said Howard Davies, secretary general of Bata.

The problem for the National Air Traffic Service (Nats) is that the world's most advanced air-traffic control centre has been grounded - because of errors in the computer system. The errors are on such a large scale that the problem is unlikely to be resolved in the near future.

What has surprised experts is that the company that won the lucrative contract for Swanwick - the American giant Lockheed Martin - also secured a pounds 230m deal to build the Scottish air traffic centre in Prestwick.

Mr Davies says that the airlines are also considering asking the National Audit Office to probe the Swanwick deal. "We would like to know whether the contractor can be penalised for this level of service," he said. The Commons transport select committee will also investigate the "Swanwick affair" when Parliament reconvenes next month.

British Airways has made "representations" to Nats concerning the non- service from Swanwick. " We eagerly await Nats' proposals in order to resolve the issue. Clearly it affects punctuality - which is important for many passengers." In March, only 37 per cent of BA's Gatwick to Miami flights ran to time; on the Heathrow-Los Angeles service more than 40 per cent of planes left late.